Spotlight: Thu Le, M.D.

Jan. 19, 2022
Thu Le
Thu Le, M.D.

In October 2018, the department of Medicine welcomed Thu Le, M.D., as the new division chief of Nephrology. In just three years, Le has become a pillar of leadership and a true mentor to researchers and clinicians.

Destined to Become a Doctor

As a little girl growing up in Vietnam, Le always knew she would follow in her father’s footsteps. He was a physician. At only six years old, Le became sick, and she remembers her father simply using his stethoscope to diagnose her with pneumonia, and then took her to receive care. It was a formative experience for her. “He healed me,” Le said. “And I wanted to heal people too.”

At eight years old, Le’s family left Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975. They went to Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, one of four resettlement centers in the US where thousands of Vietnamese refugees were given help for political asylum. The family was sponsored by a church that helped them settle in Washington D.C., where Le spent the rest of her childhood.

Although attending school with other children her age taught her a lot, Le credits watching the beloved show Sesame Street with helping her to learn English. As a high school student, Le knew she was pre-med bound for college.

Medical Education

Wanting to be close to home for college, Le attended George Washington University for her undergrad in chemistry with a minor in philosophy. She earned her M.D. from George Washington University School of Medicine in 1993 and graduated as valedictorian. During the second-year integrative curriculum, she was awestruck when she heard lectures by Nephrologists, inspiring her career choice.    

Le made a move to North Carolina when she took up her Internal Medicine residency at Duke University from 1993-96. As she rotated through nephrology, she had many wonderful teachers and found interest in complex patients, confirming her path.

She stayed at Duke for her fellowship in nephrology from 1996-2000, an extended four-year program, as she wanted to be in a lab and gather data for a career development award. She worked in a reno-physiology lab, studying hypertension, and was motivated by the incredible impact science has on patients. “While caring for each patient one at a time is rewarding, it is through research that we can improve the lives of our patients on a much larger scale,” Le said. 

Journey to URMC

Le remained at Duke as a faculty member from 2000-09. She was then recruited to the University of Virginia, where she was the associate director of the T32 Nephrology Training Program, vice chief of Research in Nephrology, and director of the Nephrology Clinical Research Center.

Then she got a phone call from Stephen Hammes, M.D., Ph.D. He was the head of the search committee at URMC for the next division chief of Nephrology. “First of all, she had an excellent CV,” said Hammes. “She was very accomplished, and she was a resident and fellow at Duke, where I earned my Ph.D., so I knew she would be great. In talking to her, she was so nice, smart, calm, and confident. She had great ideas about leadership.”

According to Le, the phone call with Hammes was enough to get her interested in visiting Rochester. “I was a little worried about the cold weather,” said Le, “but the UR environment was very warm and welcoming. I felt it was a great fit. UR was the best in people, programs, and opportunities, and the collaborative spirit was outstanding.”

Building the Division of Nephrology

Le inherited a great division from former chief of 29 years, David Bushinsky, M.D., who “left the division in great shape,” according to Le. She had one year to learn the system before COVID hit, presenting all of URMC with many challenges. Despite this, Le has continued to grow and enhance the division.

Under her leadership, the division has recruited more faculty members, the dialysis operation has expanded from 600 to 750 patients, and expansions have taken place at Noyes, Hornell, and Geneva. Le has personally recruited several faculty to focus on research efforts.

Life and Passions Outside of Work

Thu Le and Tuco
Le and Tuco

Home life is full of wonderful things for Le. She is happily married to her husband, Dan Gilroy, and they love their four-legged friend Tuco, an American bulldog and boxer mix. At one point, they had up to four dogs in their home! They always have rescue dogs. “I can’t image life without a dog,” she said. “They offer companionship, and best of all, unadulterated love.”

When she has downtime, Le enjoys reading novels. She likes to incorporate exercise in her weekly routine, and often this means taking Tuco for long walks. She loves to garden. “I find it therapeutic to spend time outside,” Le said. “I’ve actually spent more time outside in the three summers in Rochester than when I was in North Carolina or Virginia.”